In the midst of the simmering row over his "democracy under threat" remarks in the UK, Rahul Gandhi on Sunday faced a Delhi police team that reached his residence to inquire about his "women are still being sexually assaulted" statement made during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, intensifying the BJP-Congress verbal slugfest.
Gandhi in his initial response termed the police action "unprecedented" and questioned the process as well as the sudden urgency shown over his remarks made in Srinagar 45 days ago. He also sought 8-10 days for a detailed response to the queries, sources said.
A furious Congress condemned the Delhi Police action after the cops knocked on Gandhi's doors for the third time in five days asking him to provide information on the women "victims" so that the police can take up their case.
The opposition party attacked the central government, accusing it of harassment, intimidation and political vendetta, but the BJP rejected the charge and said the police was "only discharging its lawful duty".
The issue has cast a fresh shadow over the budget session of Parliament which has so far not seen any major transaction of business in the wake of the Opposition uproar over the Adani issue and the BJP demanding a public apology from Rahul Gandhi on his remarks in the UK.
The police team headed by Special Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Sagar Preet Hooda arrived at Gandhi's 12, Tughlaq Lane residence in the high-security area at around 10 am and was able to meet the Congress leader after two hours, officials said, adding it left at around 1 pm.
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This was the third time that Gandhi was approached in this regard, the officials said, adding a notice with a questionnaire was sent to him earlier seeking details of victims who approached him about sexual harassment as the police wants to initiate a probe into the matter as soon as it gets the information.
The BJP launched a fresh offensive against the Congress leader, who is already facing pressure from the ruling party to tender an apology over his "democracy under threat" remarks made in London recently. The BJP has alleged that Gandhi insulted the country on foreign soil and had sought foreign intervention in India.
Union minister Anurag Thakur said Rahul Gandhi should share information if he is really serious about women's issues and wondered if he was trying to hide something.
"It has become a habit of some people to remain in limelight by saying anything. But, they don't understand the seriousness of the subject. If Rahulji is really serious about women's issues, then he should give the information. What is he hiding?... Was it a lie then or is he lying now, only he can tell," the Information and Broadcasting Minister said.
Addressing a joint press conference at the AICC headquarters here, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, party general secretary Jairam Ramesh and national spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said the move was a clear case of "vendetta, intimidation and harassment" to create an atmosphere against the former Congress chief.
Gehlot warned that the central dispensation was setting a bad precedent by registering cases on statements of opposition leaders made during political campaigns, adding that the BJP leaders, including Union ministers, could face similar action over remarks made in states not ruled by it.
Terming the events as "tamasha", Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said the government is trying to harass Rahul Gandhi but asserted that neither Gandhi nor the party would be intimidated or cowed down by such actions.
Security had been stepped up around Gandhi's residence as the police team descended there. Congress leaders Pawan Khera, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Jairam Ramesh and others arrived while the police team was inside.
A group of party workers protested outside and raised slogans. Four-five Congress workers were detained, taken to a nearby police station and later released, an official said.
According to the police, Gandhi stated in Srinagar during the Bharat Jodo Yatra that ''I have heard that women are still being sexually assaulted'', and since the Yatra had passed through Delhi also, they wanted to ascertain if any victim had approached the Congress leader here so that they can initiate a probe into the matter.
Sources said that in the 10-point preliminary reply to the Delhi Police's notice on Sunday, Gandhi wondered whether the action had anything to do with his position taken both inside and outside Parliament on the Adani issue, the sources said.
He asked whether campaigns of other political parties, including the ruling BJP, have been subjected to such kind of scrutiny or questioning, they added.
The police, the sources said, had earlier gone to his residence to seek the Congress leader's response to the questionnaire on March 15 but could not meet him and then again visited him on March 16, when Gandhi sought time of around a week to 10 days to respond.
"The police had asked him to give details of these victims so that security could be provided to them," an official said.
Terming it a serious matter, Special Commissioner of Police Hooda said after Gandhi made his remark, they conducted a local inquiry to collect details if any woman had approached Gandhi during the Yatra's Delhi leg about their ordeal.
"But no such incident came to the notice of our officials also nor did we find any victim," the officer said.
Hooda said that after he failed to collect any information in this regard, they decided to approach the Congress leader himself and accordingly, a notice with a questionnaire was also sent to him seeking details of victims who approached him about sexual harassment.
The BJP said Gandhi should provide the information sought by the police so that the victims can get justice.
BJP president J P Nadda accused Rahul Gandhi of overstepping all bounds of democracy and said he should be sent packing "lock, stock and barrel" in a democratic manner.
"Those who do not believe in democracy have no place in a democracy," Nadda said in his address after virtually inaugurating the 'National Youth parliament' of his party's youth wing Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, being held in Chennai.
Party spokesperson Sambit Patra said police should have information about incidents claimed by Gandhi and that is why the Delhi Police has followed the legal procedure to meet the Congress leader for details.
He took a swipe at the Congress, saying the party is now crying that "democracy is in danger" over the lawful action by the police.
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